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Recycling matters - Is it actually worth recycling?

Published: 28 April 2021

Recycling matters Recycling matters

In his regular feature, Denis the Dustcart talks about recycling and if it's actually worth doing. Aside from the obvious environmental benefits it brings, your recycling effort helps to fund public services in Exeter.

You can follow Denis on his Facebook page to keep up with information about Recycling issues.

Is it actually worth recycling?

Yes, absolutely.

Aside from the obvious environmental benefits it brings, your recycling effort helps to fund public services in Exeter.

Exeter is one of the few authorities in the country that owns and operates a Materials Reclamation Facility (MRF). We run our waste service in-house (i.e. we don’t engage a third-party to empty your bins and/or sort your recycling). We bring the recycling from your green bin to our MRF for sorting and take the rubbish from your black bin to Devon County Council’s Energy from Waste plant in Exeter to generate electricity for the grid.

We employ over twenty people in our MRF and are able to separate material into valuable streams of ‘recyclate’, which we sell to companies that we know will turn them into new products.

Our MRF produces high-quality paper, card, steel and aluminium loads, as well as six plastic streams: milk bottles, clear plastic bottles, coloured plastic bottles, pots/tubs/trays, film/bags and oversized items (drums, marine crates, etc.).

Such is the quality of the products we present to the market that we actually attract bidders. Put simply, our buyers are willing to pay extra for what we produce.

I’ve heard it’s cheaper to burn stuff than to recycle it. Is this true?

No. Recycling generates money for public services in Exeter. Incinerating rubbish costs public money.

We recycle everything we can in order to maximise the income it makes for the city. It would not make sense for us to take something that generates money for local public services and abandon it to the incinerator, where burning one tonne of rubbish costs over £100 of public money.

It would not make sense for us to employ our staff to sort this material only to then send it to be burned at public expense.

Can you recycle everything I put in my green bin?

We can recycle all commonly recyclable items. There is, however, confusion among members of the public as to which items are and are not commonly recyclable. Moreover, there are materials local authorities simply can’t sell on – and perhaps would even have to pay to move on.

Of course, recycling isn’t all about the money, but we’re not talking about private profit here; we’re talking about public funds.

Local authorities invest their income in public services. Maximising income for public services through high-quality sorting of recycling is one thing, but using public money to move on material for which there is a negative market value is quite another.

Salad bags, for instance, cannot be recycled from home. The polymer is not of sufficient quality to be made into anything of any value as a product, therefore there is no market for them.

This is why these cheap plastics are often termed ‘problem plastics’ – single-use, flimsy, hard-to-recycle packaging.

Many common purchases – such as crisp packets, pet food pouches and toothpaste tubes – require highly specialised processing before they can be turned into anything remotely useful. Usually they become composite items, such as plastic planks for park benches.

Residents may well place this hard-to-recycle packaging in their recycling bins in good faith, but the fact is that we have no way of moving it on. There is so little value for the weight of the material we collect that collecting and separating it and moving it on would cost us more than we’d make from it.

Supermarkets are now getting involved in collecting these plastics, because they are able to collect significant amounts nationally.

Shouldn’t these items be made more recyclable?

This is an issue for the packaging industry to solve. Local authorities cannot maximise the value of something that has no inherent value.

Any disposable material that is hard to recycle is innately harmful.

Improving more recycling facilities to capture this problematic packaging would not address the fact that so much of it could not be recycled into packaging again even after such improvements were made. It is the packaging itself that must be addressed.

Is there a duty of care on local authorities to ensure they send their recycling material for recycling?

Yes, absolutely.

There is a duty of care on us, as a local authority, to ensure that we know where our material goes and what it will become.

The industry uses PRNs (Packaging Recovery Notes) to know how much of the material sent by local authorities for recycling is actually being recycled. These are issued per tonne of material by accredited recycling reprocessors and exporters (in which case they are called PERNs) to prove that they’ve recycled that tonne.

In Exeter we only work with reputable and transparent companies and brokers.

We are all too aware that there are less reputable brokers who might have the correct permissions, but who, because there are government subsidies involved in exports, may then end up claiming multiple subsidies depending on where the plastic goes.

But we have always followed the supply chain of the material we sort – from when it leaves our plant to when it becomes a new product. It’s a philosophy ingrained in our processes, and it begins with sorting the material well.

Even if we hadn’t worked so hard to develop our reputation for quality, and hadn’t developed important relationships within the industry, and weren’t so strict in our sales procedures, such good-quality recycling would be unlikely to attract the kind of brokers who might deceive a seller. Bales of pure HDPE plastic would be too valuable not to recycle, or too expensive to buy without getting a more significant return on the investment than could be achieved through the PERNs alone.

It just isn’t good business sense to pay a premium for something with no intention of making money from it – and that’s why the UK plastic found in overseas landfill sites is from mixed or contaminated cheap plastic loads.

How can I be a ‘good recycler’?

We would always encourage people to think carefully about what they bring into their homes, and to reuse anything they can (salad bags are good for wrapping sandwiches) until they become unusable. Only then should these items go in the black bin to be sent directly to the Energy from Waste plant – saving us from having to make a separate trip there from our recycling plant with material that can’t be sent for recycling.

Another issue that can affect the recyclability of materials is contamination. Food in the green bin will contaminate dry recycling – paper in particular. Believe it or not, we also find a considerable amount of dog mess coming down our recycling conveyors.

We cannot recycle material for which there is no market, or anything that should go in the black bin, or any material that has been rendered non-recyclable by contamination.

Recycling collections are different from place to place. Shouldn’t there be a greater UK-wide strategy?

It’s fair to say that the lack of a coordinated nationwide waste and recycling strategy has fostered confusion in the public about what can and can’t be recycled and where.

That fact is that different councils have different resources available to them and utilise different collection and sorting methods from district to district. Some use third-party collection and sorting companies; others collect the waste in their own vehicles, while we’re one of the only local authorities to own a Materials Reclamation Facility.

The UK recycling industry – including local authorities – needs to be supported by a common strategy, which will in turn build greater public confidence.

The government is introducing a nationwide strategy soon that will not only obligate all local authorities to collect the same materials, but also ask manufacturers to make their packaging more recyclable.

Nonetheless, our priorities in Exeter will remain as follows:

  • to effect behavioural change around consumerism by supporting consumers in making informed choices;
  • to assist the public in their efforts to reduce their waste, to reuse what they can and to recycle as much of what they do buy as possible;
  • to raise awareness about manufacturing processes and obligations;
  • to ensure that the material we produce from our recycling collection service is of the highest possible quality, able to be turned into valuable products;
  • to follow the supply chain until what we sell on becomes a product and not waste again.

We have worked hard to gain a good reputation in the recycling industry. With the hugely appreciated collective effort of Exeter residents and our committed staff we are best placed to continue to ensure your recycling gets properly recycled.

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